Defense Digest, Vol. 27, No. 4, September 2021

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Sudden Emergency Doctrine No Longer a “Defense.”


Key Points:

  • Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the sudden emergency doctrine in Graham v. Check.
  • Court held that the doctrine should not be understood as a “defense,” and that the word “defense” should not be used in sudden emergency jury instructions.
  • Court stated that the existence of an emergency is just one of many different factors a jury should take into account in assessing reasonableness.


Motor vehicle accident defendants requesting a jury charge on the “sudden emergency doctrine” may face new battles following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision in Graham v. Check, 243 A.3d 153 (Pa. 2020).

The sudden emergency doctrine, in the most basic sense, stands for the proposition that an individual will not be held to the usual degree of care when confronted with sudden and unexpected circumstances. Instead, the individual is required to demonstrate only an honest exercise of judgment. The rationale behind the rule is that a person who is confronted with a sudden or unexpected event should not be subject to liability simply because another course of action may have been available. While not explicitly limited to such, the doctrine is most often applied in the context of transportation liability, where a driver is unexpectedly faced with an unforeseen event of some sort.

The Graham case arose out of a motor vehicle and pedestrian accident. The plaintiff, Francis Graham, was attempting to cross an intersection in downtown Pittsburgh and was struck by a vehicle being operated by Larry Check. Mr. Graham filed suit against Mr. Check, alleging negligence. At trial, despite objections from Mr. Graham’s counsel, the court granted Mr. Check’s request to include the sudden emergency doctrine in the jury charge. The trial court used the Pennsylvania Standard Jury Instructions related to the doctrine, which included the term “defense.”

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in charging the jury on the sudden emergency doctrine because the defendant was familiar with the road, the plaintiff was in a crosswalk and the defendant had a duty to anticipate the presence of a pedestrian. The defendant countered that the instruction was proper, given that he was not speeding, had the green light and was suddenly confronted with an unexpected event.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded the case for a new trial after determining that the jury should not have been instructed on the sudden emergency doctrine. The court, however, went beyond simply holding that the jury instruction was improper and, instead, included language that could affect the way the doctrine is utilized in Pennsylvania moving forward.

Justice Wecht, writing for the majority, noted that the proper issue to be determined was whether “a party exercised the care of a reasonably prudent person under all of the circumstances presented,” not just based on the alleged emergency presented. Most importantly, the court explicitly advised against using the sudden emergency doctrine as a “defense,” holding that the existence of an emergency is just one of many different factors a jury should take into account in assessing reasonableness. The court specifically stated that “the sudden emergency doctrine should not be understood as a ‘defense’ in the common sense, and we find it ill-advised to use the word ‘defense’ in sudden emergency jury instructions in future cases, notwithstanding that the term features in the current suggested standard instruction.”

Commentators have offered varying perspectives on the decision. Some argue that the court all but abolished the sudden emergency doctrine. Others, however, have optimistically asserted that the decision will have little impact, as the majority opinion did note that there remain situations where the doctrine’s applicability would be appropriate. However, given the limiting language contained within the Graham opinion, trial courts may begin requiring a higher threshold burden in order for a sudden emergency instruction to be given.

With jury trials returning, as COVID restrictions lessen, trial courts will wrestle with the consequences of the Graham decision. Attorneys for the plaintiffs will undoubtedly attempt to use Graham to lessen the sudden emergency doctrine’s applicability. One thing that can be said with certainty is that any attempt to use a jury instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine that includes the term “defense” will certainly be met with objections from opposing counsel familiar with the Graham decision. Counsel are also likely to argue that courts should exercise significant caution in determining whether to instruct a jury on the doctrine, as opposed to simply providing the standard comparative negligence instruction. As such, defense counsel should be mindful of the details of the Graham opinion, including the dissents, when handling cases involving the doctrine.

*Brad is an associate in our Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, office. He can be reached at 412.803.2448 or


Defense Digest, Vol. 27, No. 4, September 2021 is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2021 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact